AUSTIN, Texas—Could a primary campaign that has so far been memorable for the best of reasons end up becoming synonymous with the worst?
The reasons to love the Democratic contest to date are many and, for the most part, obvious: the evidence that a new generation of voters has become passionately engaged with public life; the presence of two formidable candidates, one female and one African-American; the promise of a restoration of American values after seven years during which a sepulchral darkness seemed to pervade the body politic.
“We’ve lived through such ugly times that people want to have a romance with the idea of America again, and I think they need to,” Bruce Springsteen told USA Today last week.
That sense of romance and possibility first became obvious in the weeks leading up to Barack Obama’s win in Iowa. But it also underpinned Hillary Clinton’s rise from her political deathbed in New Hampshire, when, it now seems clear, many Democratic voters recoiled at the idea that such a historic contest could come to an early end.
In the past two weeks, however, the elevated atmosphere of those early days has begun to curdle. The downward slide even had an identifiable starting date: February 24, when Mrs. Clinton mocked the optimism that her opponent’s campaign had come to symbolize and, to some extent, embody.
Speaking in Rhode Island, the New York senator suggested that if she just expressed the hope that people would be unified, “the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing.” On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart suggested Mrs. Clinton might like to try out a new campaign slogan: “Vote Clinton because a deaf God ignores our pleas.”
Mrs. Clinton’s Rhode Island routine was only the precursor to a grimmer onslaught, incorporating tactics both overblown (the “3 a.m.” TV ad) and underhanded (she told 60 Minutes that there was no reason to believe that Mr. Obama is a Muslim “as far as I know”).
The downward spiral of the campaign could yet be arrested by events. If the results from Texas and Ohio, unknown at press time, are firmly in Mr. Obama’s favor, that would effectively end Mrs. Clinton’s White House hopes, rendering any further discussion of tactics moot.
If Mrs. Clinton comes out on top, however, things could become very nasty very fast. The obvious lesson to be drawn from such an outcome would be that the direct attacks and slimy insinuations of the past week or so had worked. They would therefore continue and probably be intensified. Mr. Obama would doubtless respond in kind.
If that were to happen, the bitterness that has just begun to enter the campaign might really take root.
All that said, some sense of perspective is required. The tone of the Democrats’ campaign may well have taken a nose dive. But it hardly bears comparison—yet—to truly abhorrent intraparty episodes, like the Bush-McCain clash in 2000 in South Carolina.
Past Democratic struggles have been much more spiteful than this one. In the same speech in which she made controversial comments about Mr. McCain over this past weekend, feminist Gloria Steinem cast her mind back four decades, to the clash between Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. “It wasn’t enough to support Eugene McCarthy; you had also to hate Bobby Kennedy,” Ms. Steinem recalled.
For all the clichés about the tendency of Democrats to form circular firing squads, the party rarely falls victim to the kind of extraordinary schisms that afflict parties elsewhere in the Western world.
Britain’s Labor Party condemned itself to opposition for the entirety of the 1980’s, when its far-left and moderate wings went to war with each other. Whatever the tensions between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, it hardly seems likely that one will denounce the other from the platform of the national convention, as Labor leader Neil Kinnock denounced prominent leftist Derek Hatton in the mid-1980’s.
During the same period, Ireland’s largest party, Fianna Fail, was being roiled by battles between one faction loyal to leader Charles Haughey and another faction that loathed him. If there were any doubts about the depths of the mutual enmity, they were rather emphatically dispelled when Mr. Haughey told a national magazine that he could “instance a load of fuckers whose throats [he would] cut and push over the nearest cliff.” It remains difficult to imagine those words falling from the lips of the former first lady or the senator from Illinois.
The internal feuds are still going on in Europe. Current French President Nicolas Sarkozy believes he was the victim of a smear campaign dating back to 2004, in which he was falsely accused of financial malfeasance. Among those who were questioned about their involvement in the alleged plot was Mr. Sarkozy’s party colleague Dominique De Villepin, the former prime minister. Mr. Sarkozy’s predecessor as head of state, Jacques Chirac, refused to meet with judges investigating the matter, arguing that he was covered by presidential immunity.
That is what real dirty politics looks like. But the comparison is cold comfort for Democrats. Levels of distrust and dislike between the Clinton and Obama camps are rising fast, and one does not have to be privy to conversations at the party’s highest levels to discern the dangers.
Last week, I watched Mr. Obama address a huge rally at Texas State University in San Marcos. Afterward, one member of the crowd, Kaitlin Murphy, explained her reasons for supporting the senator in unabashedly emotional terms. But the loyalty to Mr. Obama came wrapped in an enmity for Mrs. Clinton. “She’s a dirty politician, I don’t trust her,” Ms. Murphy said.
Two days later, I had a casual conversation with two Clinton fund-raisers at a campaign event in Austin. They could barely contain their anger at what they perceived to be Mr. Obama’s disingenuousness. And their conversation was also marked by constant innuendos about what, exactly, Mr. Obama had done in the past.
This much is clear: The longer the Democratic contest goes, the uglier it will get.